Sunday, October 01, 2006

At the hospital: waiting it out

Yesterday morning I was awakened by a phone call from my mother's caretaker, the sort of phone call no one likes to get. She said my mother was having tingling and numbness in her left arm and left leg, which happens to be the distribution of the stroke she had last summer.

And everything had been going so well recently with her. Things had stabilized to the point where she was comfortable and relatively content, if not happy. I reminded myself that there was no reason to imagine they wouldn't continue to go well. This event could be big, even the Big One; or it could be nothing at all, or next to nothing at all.

I felt a strange calm above the eerie fluttering in my gut as I drove to the hospital and met them there. My mother was already in a hospital bed, looking unfrail and quite herself (she's one of the few ninety-two-year olds I've ever seen with a full head of thick hair, albeit white). Her nervousness was palpable, and she's a lousy reporter--"when did it start?" "Are you having any weakness?" "Is it worse now, or before?" are all challenging and perhaps unanswerable questions for her at this point.

So we played the waiting game. The man in the next bed had a prostate operation gone bad, a painful infection. This is the sort of thing one cannot help overhearing. The flimsy curtain does almost nothing to hide the anguish and turmoil and the small and large humiliations of the emergency room vigil, both for the patient and the furrow-browed relatives. It works only marginally better than the hospital gown serves to guard the privacy of the body, slipping and sliding and riding up, exposing this and that at intervals.

Intervals. Why are there no clocks in these waiting rooms? Because if there were, time might be seen to pass in excruciatingly slow increments. Because when the doctor says "I'll be back in a few minutes," it's not really a good idea to count those minutes too closely.

So one waits. One waits to hear news that will either change a life, or let it go on much as before. One waits to see whether the numbness will progress to weakness and then to virtual paralysis--as it did last time--or even worse. One waits to see whether this particular precious life will turn more tragic, or stay its fairly decent course a while longer.

It's not really so different from any other day, any other moment in which life can change in an instant. The only real difference is that in the hospital waiting room that fact is highlighted with sudden sharpness.

And there's the illusion that it's time-limited, as well. We'll learn her fate in "a few minutes." But the fate we learn is only today's fate and that minute's fate, and that's all we ever know.

The results of the CAT scan were excellent. No new damage. The symptoms began to resolve. My mother began to smile. She ate a turkey sandwich and had a ginger ale. The doctors told her the provisional diagnoses, just guesses on their part: a TIA, or a complex migraine. Go home, relax, go about your business.

So we did. And so we do.

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